Barnes & Noble, indies ally against Amazon

Hillel Italie
Associated Press

New York – When Barnes & Noble Chairman Len Riggio delivers a keynote address at this week’s publishing convention, he will be introduced by a man once considered a bitter rival, CEO Oren Teicher of the American Booksellers Association.

“Len has had this incredible, distinguished career as a retailer,” Teicher said of the superstore executive, praise unthinkable when Barnes & Noble helped put thousands of independent stores out of business in the 1980s and 1990s.

“I’ve always liked him,” Riggio said of Teicher. “He’s a good leader — caring, intelligent.”

Riggio and Teicher will appear together Wednesday at BookExpo, which runs Wednesday through Friday at the Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan, followed over the weekend by the fan-based BookCon.

BookExpo once was an occasion for high tension between Barnes & Noble and the independents, peaking in 1994 when on the eve of the convention the ABA sued several publishers for allegedly giving B&N and other chains favorable treatment on prices. In 1998, the ABA sued Barnes & Noble and Borders for unfair business practices (both suits were settled out of court).

But in 2018, Teicher noted, physical retailers have a common foe in

“That does end up changing the dynamic a little bit,” he said.

For now, Teicher has good reason to be of generous spirit. While Barnes & Noble has struggled in recent years, the ABA has continued its rebound after a long decline brought on by Barnes & Noble and Borders, and then Amazon.

Membership in the independent’s trade group grew over the past year from 1,757 to 1,835, and the actual number of store locations from 2,321 to 2,470, at a time when online retailing has devastated numerous physical retailers.

In the first four months of 2018, sales from the roughly 650-750 independent stores reporting numbers have increased more than 5 percent from the same time the year before, according to Teicher. In 2009, the ABA had just 1,401 members and 1,651 stores and had shrunk by two-thirds since the beginning of the 1990s, when membership topped 5,000.

Independents have been helped by the slowing of B&N and of the e-book market, but Teicher has cited factors ranging from the “buy local” movement to increased interest overall in owning a bookstore. The ABA currently has 168 “provisional” members, those thinking of or planning to open a store. The association had 141 provisional members a year ago and 108 in 2016.

Teicher also noted a growing number of small, mobile stores, such as the Dundee Book Co. in Omaha, Nebraska, and New York City’s pop-up Boogie Down Books, which bills itself as “the bookstore without walls.”

“We’re encouraged by that,” Teicher said. “It shows how sellers can adapt and change.”

Teicher and Riggio agreed that Barnes & Noble and independent sellers get along well enough that it’s not uncommon for Barnes & Noble outlets and locally owned stores to refer customers to each other should a given book be out of stock.

On the corporate level, they are allied on First Amendment issues and on getting online retailers such as Amazon to collect sales tax. Teicher says it’s vital for all so-called “bricks and mortar” sellers that the superstore chain “not only survives, but thrives.”

“When Borders went away,” Teicher said of the 2009 demise of the Borders superstore chain, “we picked up some of the business and Amazon picked up some of that business. But some of it just went away. And having that happen again would not be good for our business.”